Residents hear Act 46 merger proposal at Flood Brook School

Study Committee member Deb Lyneis of Weston gives a presentation on the merger proposal Photos by Bruce Frauman

By Bruce Frauman
©2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Around 50 people braved the single digit temperatures and blowing snow on Thursday, Feb. 9 to attend an Act 46 School Merger Forum at Flood Brook School in Londonderry. The hour-long presentation by study committee member Debra Lyneis  outlined the proposed merger of schools for nine towns into the Taconic and Green School District.

The towns in the proposed district would share one school board, one budget and, after five years, one equalized education tax rate. The new district would retain 9-12 school choice and remain in the BRSU. The State Board of Education granted a preliminary waiver so that the new district would retain fair representation on the BRSU board. Other towns in the BRSU are Rupert, Pawlet, and Winhall.

The Mountain Town Regional Education District (made up of Londonderry, Weston, Peru and Landgrove) operates a K-8 school and tuitions out its 9-12 grade students, as do the towns of Dorset and Manchester. A Yes vote is required in each of these towns, identified as “necessary” on the official ballot, for the merger to take place.

Weston select board members Jim Linville and Annie Fuji’i listen to the proposal.

The towns of Danby, Mt. Tabor and Sunderland currently offer school choice for grades 7 and 8. Approval in these towns, identified as “advisable” on the ballot, is not necessary for the new district of be formed. A frequently asked questions hand out states that “the merger included a grandfather provision to allow students” from these three towns “to continue to attend schools outside of the new district during a transition period.”

The study committee met 14 times and came to an unanimous agreement on the merger. The State Board of Education approved the merger in December so it could be put before the voters.

All towns in the proposed Taconic and Green School District will vote on the merger by Australian ballot on town meeting day, March 7. Lyneis said the ballot is several pages long but concludes with a simple Yes/No vote on the merger proposal. Candidates for the initial board of directors from each of the towns also appear on the ballot along with four at-large board directors. This year two are from Manchester and one each from Dorset and Danby.

Londonderry select board member Paul Gordon asks about having an at large member from the Mountain Town RED.

Londonderry Select Board member Paul Gordon said he wants an at-large candidate from the Mountain Town RED and merger committee chair Jon Wilson noted that the at-large positions are only for one-year terms. Londonderry Town Clerk Kelly Pajala confirmed that any new at-large candidates would have to be write-ins. In its first year, the new board would meet in parallel with the existing boards before taking over the new district in July 2018.

“Act 46 now encourages districts to seek merger partners, but it is encouragement with a lot of teeth,” Lyneis said, “minimum district size is 900 students and we only have 425 … we have to merge.” Lyneis observed that the Mountain Town RED joined the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union, in part, to preserve high school choice. Now, Lyneis added, “In order to preserve school choice, we must merge with districts with similar choice options.”

The merger must be voted on by July 2017 to receive tax incentives. Lyneis said, “If we don’t merge, the state will merge districts for us” in 2019. The plan is “to shape our own destiny under the law.”

Study committee member Dick Dale addresses issues of local control

During a discussion on local control, study committee member Dick Dale noted that “the other critical point is that the majority of students who currently attend Flood Brook would continue to attend Flood Brook. . . .when we talked about the flexibility of students, there might be some occasions where a student might need a different environment to start over. With this larger system, that would certainly be possible. The majority of parent interaction is with your local teacher and then with your local administrators. These people aren’t going away. We voted for the merger because on balance – a tremendous benefit to all of the children. That was our overarching concern.”

By merging into the new district, schools will be able to provide programs some cannot offer now including foreign language, drama, music, sports, and advanced math.

“Now we can all be under one roof and do those things,” Lyneis said.

Lyneis said that benefits of the merger included preserving 9-12 school choice, streamlining of governance and management, and flexibility to share resources across schools and flexible grouping of students among schools.

“One school board instead of seven,” Lyneis said,  “Seven school boards is a lot for a supervisory union to manage. They spend a lot of time preparing for and attending school board meetings. That’s time they could spend focusing on education of kids.”

Study committee chair Jon Wilson explains how a larger district can smooth out tax spikes from school choice.

Short term cost savings already took place with the creation of the RED and within the BRSU. Long term cost savings could come from more streamlined bus management, centralized purchasing, maintenance, food service and technology.

Wilson noted that much of the volatility in the tax rates is due to 9-12 school choice. School boards have to budget for the number of 9-12 students they predict will come in. Last year Mountain Town RED had 10 fewer students than they predicted, so had a surplus. “Manchester had 25 more students then they budgeted for so that brings you into a deficit,” said Wilson, “with that larger scale, we really hope the volatility in the tax rate will diminish.”

In anticipation of the merger, according to Lyneis, school districts are applying reserve funds to current budgets to reduce tax rates. If the plan is passed before July 2017, tax reductions of 8, 6, 4,and 2 cents per hundred would be applied to the tax rates successively in the four years following merger.

GNAT TV recorded the session and will have it available on its website shortly. More information, including the FAQ provided at the forum is available at the Northshire Merger Study Committee‘s website.

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